Moreover, newfound forms of connected exercise — which included no-cost, socially distanced walks around the neighborhood — yielded untold mental health benefits.
“We crave human contact,” Dr. Frates says. “Even if we didn’t talk to people in our virtual classes, just seeing them doing the same moves helped us feel connected. We were joined in the journey of the class and meeting the challenges of the moment, whether they were planks or Warrior poses.”
Our ability to exercise in fundamentally fulfilling ways also heightened our sense of control during an otherwise out-of-control era, says Dr. Pamela Peck, clinical director of psychiatry at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
“It’s been a little bit of making lemonade out of lemons. You could show up for your 6 a.m. class, even when you didn’t have control over the numbers of COVID cases or how long this was all going to last,” Dr. Peck says.
Online workouts do present a few disadvantages, notably a lack of personalized attention from instructors who can wave to the masses but not much else. “Actions that encourage us, like pats on the back and high-fives, are all bigger and stronger in person than on-screen,” Dr. Frates says.
Still, virtual sessions — which are certain to blend with in-person options beyond the pandemic — have much to offer. Harvard experts point to these additional benefits:
Variety. It’s tough to claim boredom with your exercise routine when so many workout choices are available at the touch of a button. Customized “playlists” of classes allow you to toggle between, say, high-energy aerobics and core-strengthening Pilates, accomplishing specific fitness goals.
Collective competition. Some of us have banded together with friends to join the same online workout classes. “A lot of people benefit from the competitiveness that results,” Dr. Elson says.
Privacy. Some people don’t like exercising around others in person or feel vulnerable in that setting. “For them, virtual classes afford connection at a distance,” Dr. Peck says.
Shared experience. Personal crises — death, divorce, unemployment — can make us feel alone, but the pandemic is something we’ve endured together, facing the same challenges and hurdles. “Being part of something larger than yourself can help you feel grounded and less alone,” Dr. Peck says.
Perhaps the biggest upside to our new, hybrid approach to exercise: many of us are now doing more of it. “Some have slipped back into their old habits, but a lot of us have developed healthy new patterns with a new mix of options,” Dr. Elson says.
“There’s no commute time, no paying for parking, and no traffic” with virtual sessions, Dr. Frates says. “Some people have likely grown accustomed to their 7 a.m. online Zumba class and don’t want to stop — and there’s no reason to. If the ease of the class helps people stay on track, then it’s worth continuing.”